Abbott: The Coalition’s Plan For A Cleaner Environment

Opposition Leader Tony Abbott has delivered what the Liberal Party describes as a “landmark speech” on the environment.

Tony AbbottAddressing the Australian Industry Group in Brisbane, Abbott said the Coalition “supports sensible measures to reduce carbon dioxide emissions..but will never accept the proposition that you could save the environment by killing the economy.”

Abbott said: “Today, I’m stating what the Coalition will stand for as well as what the Coalition has stood against. We support direct action that will reduce emissions, not just make them more expensive. We support the creation of a Green Army marching to the rescue of Australia’s degraded waterways, wetlands, and native vegetation.”

The Liberal leader offered a new commitment: “to support a one-stop shop environmental approvals process that sets high standards, makes swift decisions and delivers certain outcomes.”

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Text of Tony Abbott’s speech to the Australian Industry Group, Brisbane.

The Coalition’s Plan for a Cleaner Environment

Ever since I was old enough to understand the term, I have regarded myself as a conservationist.

As a child, I used to play in the gullies and creeks surrounding the Lane Cove National Park. I wasn’t as careful then as now about protecting fauna, such as the red-bellied black snake, but I loved the bush for its potential for adventure and sense of solitude.

In the valley behind our house, I first learnt to sleep under the stars. On canoeing trips, I learnt to read a map. On student bush walks, I developed a sense of direction.

How could I not appreciate the natural environment in which so much of my life has been lived? As a mate speculated, on a day when the dolphins were swimming between the surfers off North Steyne, perhaps “we’d died and gone to heaven”.

I’ve never much minded houses springing up on semi-derelict farms but have always been keen to protect our cities’ remnant bushland, especially as it has been so threatened by invasive weeds and polluted run-off.

As a member of parliament, my first big campaign was for more local control of mobile phone towers. My next campaign was against the Keating government’s proposed sale of former military land around Sydney Harbour. Largely at my instigation, the Howard government committed more than $115 million to the Sydney Harbour Federation Trust to preserve the natural and built heritage of places like North Head and Middle Head.

In 1998, I started the annual Pollie Pedal bike ride, among other things, to promote cycling as a means of staying fit and seeing the country.

As parliamentary secretary for youth affairs, I helped to establish the Green Corps to give young people a six month hands-on traineeship in land care. I was a senior member of the government which used the proceeds of Telstra to set up the Natural Heritage Trust, sought a total ban on whaling, and committed $10 billion to restore the Murray-Darling basin.

Properly understood, conservation is not an obstacle to progress. It’s part of it.

One of the reasons I want better roads is because it’s actually cleaner for cars to be moving than caught in traffic jams. And I support the right dams in the right places because that’s a far more sustainable way to support modern life than desalination which Bob Carr once called “bottled electricity”.

The terms “conservative” and “conservation” have a common root. Both involve keeping the best of what we have.

It was President Teddy Roosevelt, a Republican, who first declared that “conservation (is) a national duty” and created America’s first wildlife refuge. It was a UK conservative government that passed the Clean Air Act in 1956 that finally ended London’s pea soup fogs.

In this country, it was the Coalition that began Kakadu National Park and ended whaling in Australia.

No less than the imperative to live within our means, the imperative to conserve what’s best in our heritage is part of the Coalition’s DNA. Our plan for a cleaner environment complements plans for a stronger economy, for stronger communities, for more secure borders and for the infrastructure of the future as one of the five key elements in our overall plan for a better Australia.

A cleaner environment is an essential part of restoring hope, reward and opportunity for all Australians because we should leave our country in better shape than we found it.

The question is not “who is for” and “who is against” environmental protection. We’re all environmentalists now. The challenge is to support smart ways to protect the environment, not dumb ones.

The Coalition supports sensible measures to reduce carbon dioxide emissions, for instance, but will never accept the proposition that you could save the environment by killing the economy.

I’m against the carbon tax because it’s not an environmental measure. It won’t actually reduce emissions. It’s socialism masquerading as environmentalism. It’s a kind of reverse tariff that not only penalises Australian jobs and protects overseas jobs but penalises clean Australian enterprises while giving a competitive advantage to dirty overseas ones.

Today, I’m stating what the Coalition will stand for as well as what the Coalition has stood against. We support direct action that will reduce emissions, not just make them more expensive. We support the creation of a Green Army marching to the rescue of Australia’s degraded waterways, wetlands, and native vegetation.

And today, I make a new Coalition commitment: to support a one-stop-shop environmental approvals process that sets high standards, makes swift decisions and delivers certain outcomes.

I’ve repeatedly said that the carbon tax is a bad tax based on a lie but it’s increasingly obvious that it’s also a stupid tax that will never work.

The whole point of a carbon tax is to make fossil fuels more expensive. Because it’s a tax on power and a tax on transport, it will drive up every single price in our economy.

Because it’s designed to make using coal and gas more expensive, it’s a signal to the world not to buy Australia’s largest exports and a deadly threat to the affordable energy which is our greatest single comparative economic advantage.

For its part, the government can’t quite decide whether the carbon tax is a historic reform that will change forever the way Australians live and work or whether it’s just a minor change that no one will notice especially after they’ve been more-than-fully compensated.

On the government’s own modelling, the carbon tax will reduce Australia’s iron and steel output by 21 per cent by 2050. On the government’s own modelling, the carbon tax will reduce Australia’s aluminium production by 61 per cent. The government’s own documents have Australia’s coal-fired power generation, absent carbon capture and storage, dropping from over 70 to just 10 per cent of Australia’s energy needs.

The government’s own modelling says that Australia’s gross national income will be more than $4000 per person lower with a carbon tax than without one by 2050. The government’s own modelling reveals that Australia’s cumulative GDP between now and 2050 will be one trillion dollars less with a carbon tax than without one. That’s the equivalent of the entire country actually closing down for almost a whole year.

The government claims that most households will be marginally better off, after compensation, while the carbon tax is $23 a tonne. No one is claiming that people will still be better off when the tax rises to $37 a tonne in 2020 let alone skyrockets to $350 a tonne in 2050, as the government’s own modelling predicts.

Even these forecasts, dismal though they are, depend upon the rest of the world adopting a similar carbon pricing scheme. That’s where Copenhagen changed everything. Since the failure of the Copenhagen conference in December 2009, it’s been obvious to everyone except the current government that the world is moving against making energy more expensive, not towards it.

Late last year, Canada’s Foreign Minister declared on Australian TV that his country would not be pursuing an emissions trading scheme or a carbon tax. Shortly afterwards Canada formally withdrew from the Kyoto protocol.

Also late last year, during his visit to Australia, President Obama declared that the United States had abandoned its pursuit of a national cap-and-trade scheme.

Just this month, the US state of Florida formally repealed its own cap-and-trade law, joining Arizona, Montana, New Mexico, Oregon, Washington, Utah, New Jersey and New Hampshire to wind back or abolish state-based greenhouse gas initiatives.

As the Productivity Commission reported last year, not a single country – not one – has an economy-wide carbon tax or emissions trading scheme. Not Canada. Not America. Not Japan. Not Russia. Not China. Not India.

The government’s repeated claims that the world is moving towards a carbon tax are as believable as the Prime Minister’s pre-election pledge that “there will be no carbon tax under the government I lead”.

The government often claims that China is closing down its coal fired power stations. Plainly, it’s not reducing its demand for coal. If it were, the mining boom in Queensland would be over tomorrow. In fact, China is closing down small inefficient power stations only to replace them with much larger, more efficient ones. Even so, the increase in China’s emissions in just one year exceeds the total emissions of Australia.

Another deception is the impressive-sounding claim that China plans to reduce its emissions intensity by 40 per cent over 15 years. This is only a “non-binding pledge”.

In any event, Australia has already achieved a reduction in its emissions intensity of nearly 50 per cent over the past 20 years without a carbon tax through direct action policies and businesses taking economically sensible steps to save on power and transport.

Incredibly, the government’s own modelling suggests that the reduction in Australia’s emissions intensity is projected to be less over the next 20 years with a carbon tax than it was over the last 20 years without one!

Without a carbon tax, the transport group, Linfox, estimates that it has reduced its emissions by 35 per cent since 2007 mostly by encouraging its drivers to be more economical. Since 1996, without a carbon tax, the trucking industry has reduced its particulate emissions by 92 per cent.

Without a carbon tax, the packaging group, Visy, is pioneering less-than-zero emissions power generation by converting some of its operations from standard coal-fired power to power from burning garbage that would otherwise give off massive emissions in landfills.

Perversely, many of these environmentally and economically sensible measures would actually be harder in a higher cost business environment under the carbon tax.

Because it’s energy-intensive, plastic recycling in Australia might become uneconomic because of the carbon tax. Not only would this mean importing more plastic products from China but it would also mean another 300,000 tonnes of plastic a year dumped in landfills to decompose.

The government demands that Australians accept lower living standards and the decimation of some of our most important industries because of the urgent need to save the planet by getting emissions down.

But guess what? The carbon tax does not actually reduce emissions. The government’s own modelling shows that Australia’s domestic emissions will rise, yes rise, from 578 million tonnes a year in 2010 to 621 million tonnes in 2020 despite a carbon tax increasing to $37 a tonne.

Under the government’s modelling, Australia will only achieve the targeted 5 per cent reduction in emissions in 2020 by purchasing nearly 100 million tonnes of carbon credits from foreign traders at a cost, in just that year, of nearly $3.5 billion.

Australia will only achieve the targeted 80 per cent reduction in emissions in 2050 by purchasing more than 400 million tonnes of carbon credits from abroad at a cost, in just that year, of some $57 billion. Thus, the carbon tax turns out to be not just a reverse tariff penalising Australian manufacturers and giving a competitive advantage to foreigners but by far the greatest wealth transfer from Australia to the rest of the world in our history.

Australian families will endure a lower standard of living and some of our most important industries will virtually close down. There’ll be no requirement for comparable action overseas but Australians will be expected to spend about 1.5 per cent of total GDP every year supporting emissions reductions in other countries.

It’s no wonder that David Murray, former Commonwealth Bank chief and Future Fund chairman has described the carbon tax as the worst piece of economic policy in his lifetime.

This is the “bargain” that Julia Gillard negotiated with Bob Brown. Perhaps this is why Senator Brown has decided that his work here is done and that the Prime Minister alone should reap the political credit.

Should the Coalition win the next election, the carbon tax repeal process will be the first thing I do. There is no mystery to this. Essentially, all that it requires is the passage of the repeal bill through the parliament. After all, what is done by legislation can be undone by legislation.

I don’t expect the Greens to support repealing the carbon tax. On the other hand, it’s hard to imagine the Labor Party, beaten in an election that’s a referendum on the carbon tax, committing suicide twice by resisting the new government’s mandate.

If they do, there is a constitutional procedure designed for just this eventuality. It’s called a double dissolution. I would not hesitate to seek a second mandate to repeal this toxic tax. Indeed, it would be my duty to do so.

I won’t reduce the tax, change the tax, or redesign the tax. I will repeal the tax.

The next Coalition government will repeal the carbon tax as quickly as possible and, because the electorate would double-punish the Labor Party for wilful obstruction, I expect that the repeal arrangements would be in place within six months.

The Prime Minister often says that repealing the carbon tax can’t happen because you can’t fund tax cuts and benefit increases without a new tax to pay for them. Well, the public aren’t mugs. They know that a tax cut paid for by a tax increase is a con, not a cut.

The only way that taxes can sustainably be lowered is if government spending is lower or if the economy is larger. The Coalition can deliver tax cuts without a carbon tax because we will eliminate wasteful and unnecessary government spending and because lower taxes and higher productivity will boost economic growth.

The Coalition is serious about reducing emissions because we should rest lightly upon the only planet we have. We’ll get on with the job of actually getting emissions down. That’s what our Direct Action policy does: it directly reduces emissions by encouraging actions that will bring emissions down; it doesn’t simply make everyday life more expensive.

The Coalition’s Direct Action policy is a practical, affordable and effective way to reduce emissions by 5 per cent and to improve the environment without harming the economy.

Our Emissions Reduction Fund will spend, on average, a billion dollars a year to encourage businesses to take further steps to reduce energy and fuel consumption, relying on incentives, not penalties.

In one of his reports, Professor Garnaut estimated that Australia could achieve 286 million tonnes of abatement every year for up to 50 years through capturing and storing carbon in soil. This is almost double the 5 per cent by 2020 cut that both sides have committed to.

Soil carbon is by no means the only “direct action” means to reduce emissions but it certainly is a vast potential carbon sink. In any event, more trees and smarter technology, as well as better soils, can be funded under the Coalition’s plan.

Through a tender process, overseen by an independent panel, the Coalition will support measures that reduce emissions and that deliver practical environmental benefits but that don’t increase prices to consumers or cost local jobs.

A tender process is a market mechanism. We will go to the market seeking the best value bids for measures that will improve the environment and bring emissions down.

A tender process is far more realistically a market mechanism than an emissions trading scheme which, remember, is about the non-delivery of an invisible product to no one.

The carbon tax cum emissions trading scheme, just for starters, will involve a massive and permanent increase in the size of government so is hardly the kind of measure that economic liberals would naturally support.

Climate change is an important issue but it’s not the only big environmental problem we face let alone the “greatest moral challenge of our time”. Since 2008, the government has focussed on climate change to the exclusion of almost everything else.

Some of the government’s most spectacular administrative failures have involved programmes to deal with climate change: the notorious combustible roof batts scheme, for instance, the green loans shambles, and the solar rebate debacle.

The government’s climate change fixation has not only spawned programmes that were badly thought-through and incompetently delivered. It’s also led to the neglect of other environmental issues and the running down of other programmes that could make at least as much contribution to a cleaner, greener future for Australia.

The Coalition intends to get the balance right. As well as taking direct action to reduce emissions, the Coalition will directly deal with issues like invasive species, habitat protection, and soil and water conservation.

The establishment of the Green Army will, I hope, turn out to be one of the “signature” changes which the next Coalition government will drive.

Should we win the next election, the Coalition will create and properly resource the Green Army, as a larger and more lasting version of the former Green Corps, and over time build it up to be 15,000 strong. It will be Australia’s largest-ever environmental deployment.

It will mark the first time that Australia has approached environmental remediation with the same seriousness and level of organisation that we have long brought to bushfire preparedness and other local and regional priorities.

This workforce will be capable of supplying the skilled, motivated and sustained attention that large-scale environmental remediation needs.

The Green Army will be available on an ongoing basis (over and above the existing efforts of councils, farmers, volunteers and national parks personnel) to tackle the environmental tasks that most urgently need willing hands to do the job.

There are hundreds of organisations and local environmental groups across Australia that are already doing some of this work, mostly on a volunteer basis, and they deserve our congratulations for making this country a better, cleaner and safer place. These groups, plus local councils, could submit conservation projects that require a significant labour force.

I was recently in the Mornington Peninsula with the Shadow Minister for the Environment, Greg Hunt, to look at a proposed Green Army project. Revegetation would protect the southern Peninsula’s beaches and foreshore from further erosion and improve water quality in local creeks. In addition, there would be a sea wall and pathway so people could better enjoy the beauty of the area.

The Green Army would renew the type of work done through the Natural Heritage Trust under the former government. Between 1997 and 2007, $5.1 billion was invested to help more than 800,000 volunteers to support threatened species over 1.4 million hectares of habitat; reduce pests and weeds over 15 million hectares and help protect eight million hectares of wetlands.

Finally, I congratulate the Prime Minister for last week at COAG acknowledging the need to reduce green tape but wonder how this is consistent with introducing a carbon tax that already requires 1100 pages of legislation and nearly 400 pages of regulation.

This will only get worse as the government struggles to come to terms with anomalies built into the system. Australia’s waste disposal companies, for instance, have literally dozens of staff still trying to work out exactly what the carbon tax means for them and it is due to start in just 10 weeks time.

Companies face a cost cliff the instant their emissions exceed 25,000 tonnes a year and they are required to buy permits, not for one tonne of emissions, but for 25,001. As an abattoir operator described it, “the first beast I slaughter above a certain number costs me $600,000”.

Abolishing the carbon tax will be the Coalition’s biggest single contribution to reducing the regulatory costs on business but we won’t stop there.

Over time, the proliferation of federal, state and local environmental approvals has vastly added to the complexity, cost and uncertainty of investment. The proposed Bell Bay pulp mill in Tasmania is probably the most notorious example of a big, job-creating investment that’s been jeopardised by approvals processes that can take not just months but many years.

In a submission to last week’s COAG meeting, the Business Council noted that obtaining approvals for one major project had cost $25 million and involved 4000 meetings, briefings and presentations and the preparation of a 12,000 page report. After two years, 1200 state and 300 Commonwealth conditions were imposed with a further 8000 sub-conditions.

In another notorious case, a marina in Victoria that had spent $1 million to gain state approval was indefinitely delayed under the Commonwealth Environmental Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act because it might threaten the orange-bellied parrot that had not been seen in the area for 25 years.

Investors invariably accept that projects should comply with best environmental standards. The standards aren’t the problem. It’s the indecision, imprecision and inconsistency which is killing new projects.

The Coalition will maintain high standards but seek to simplify the approvals process.

As the BCA has recommended, the Coalition will offer state and territory governments the opportunity to act as a one-stop-shop for environmental approvals. Should they accept, the states and territories would administer a single approvals process including approvals under Commonwealth legislation such as the EPBC Act.

For some projects, such as major offshore developments, the states and territories may prefer to have the Commonwealth as the sole, designated assessor.

In addition to a single assessment process, a Coalition government would seek to create a single lodgement and documentation process for environmental approvals.

States and territories that agree to be part of this one-stop-shop process should have a significant advantage attracting investment. Engendering competition between the states would be a way to make Australia’s federal system work for us rather than against us.

The one-stop-shop process could also be extended to councils that choose to be involved.

This one-stop-shop process should also be accompanied by deadlines for decision-making with penalties if these are breached such, perhaps, as partial reimbursement of lodgement fees.

As the BCA has further recommended, the states should aim to have up to 70 per cent of applications for residential and light industrial developments that comply with planning criteria exempted from the development assessment process. Certainly, the proponent of a residential development in Mission Beach, for instance, should not need Canberra’s go ahead just because there are cassowaries in North Queensland.

The next Coalition government will work with the states to bring about these reforms. Environmental standards should be clear, assessment processes should be swift, and decisions should be unambiguous.

Approvals have to be final, subject to an equally clear and consistent formal review mechanism. They can’t be at the mercy of last-minute lobbying by campaigners lest Australia start to lose the investment, the jobs and the wealth upon which lasting and sustainable environmental outcomes depend.

Too often, public debate assumes that generating wealth is incompatible with preserving the environment. There’s no doubt that economic returns aren’t always worth their long term environmental costs. Still, the wealthier a country is, the more readily it can afford to judge money-making opportunities against exacting environmental standards.

It’s a poorer country, after all, not a richer one, that’s more likely to poison its air and water and to devastate its flora and fauna.

It’s a question of getting the balance right. One side of Australian politics appreciates this. The other is politically dependent upon a Greens party that’s never seen a major development it didn’t oppose.

Australians can trust the Coalition to deliver a cleaner environment based on our record of getting things done.

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